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#642 - Indigenous Rights Activists Murdered, 17-Mar-1999

Three American human rights activists were murdered March 5 in
northeastern Arauca province in Colombia, South America, where they had
traveled at the invitation of the U'wa people. Since 1992 the U'wa have
been locked in a life-and-death struggle to protect their homelands
against oil drilling by Occidental Petroleum of Bakersfield,
California. Various environmental and indigenous peoples' organizations
from North America have been supporting the 8,000 U'wa in their efforts
to repel, by peaceful means, the invasion of the oil giants. (See
http://uwa.moles.- org/ [omit the hyphen].)

Ingrid Washinawatok, 41, a Menominee from Keshena, Wisconsin was a
well- known indigenous leader in the U.S. She was co-chairperson of the
Indigenous Women's Network, headquartered in Rapid City, South Dakota.
[1] She and her murdered companions, Lahe'ena'e Gay, 39, an indigenous
leader from Hawaii,[2] and Terence Freitas, 24, a biologist and
California native, were visiting the U'wa people in the Andes mountains
to plan an education system to help the U'wa retain their culture in
the face of growing pressure from outsiders.

The three Americans were abducted at gunpoint February 25 while driving
to a provincial airport to fly home. Eight days later, on March 5,
their bodies were found bound, blindfolded, and riddled with bullets.
Initially it was not clear who had kidnapped the three activists,[3]
but on March 10 the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)
acknowledged that one of their field commanders had perpetrated the
crime. (See http://burn.ucsd.- edu/~farc-ep/communic.htm; omit the
hyphen.) With 7000 troops in battle dress, FARC is the largest armed
group waging civil war against the Colombian government.

The NEW YORK TIMES reported March 11 (pg. A10) that Raul Reyes, a FARC
spokesperson, said, "Commander Gildardo of the FARC's 10th Front found
that strangers had entered the Uwa Indian region and did not have
authorization from the guerrillas. He improvised an investigation,
captured, and executed them without consulting his superiors." FARC has
refused to turn over the murderers to Colombian or U.S. authorities but
said they would be "sanctioned" in keeping with FARC's code of
revolutionary justice. According to the Associated Press, Reyes said
the guilty parties may face the death penalty, and he said FARC
"requested forgiveness from indigenous peoples around the world."[4]

The backdrop for these murders -- the big picture -- is that the U.S.
has depleted its domestic oil reserves and is now aggressively drilling
for oil in Latin America and elsewhere. As the WASHINGTON POST
summarized it in 1991, "Big Oil is heading south -- or east or north,
or anywhere, so long as it's outside the United States. At an
accelerating pace, the major U.S.-based oil companies are shipping
their exploration and development capital overseas. Tens of billions of
dollars that once would have been spent to drill wells or build
refineries in the United States are being earmarked for foreign

In 1992, Occidental Petroleum formed a consortium with Shell Oil (see
REHW #546) and the Colombian government. The consortium planned to
explore for oil beneath the homelends of the U'wa people, a plan that
Colombia's Supreme Court later said violated the constitution that
Colombia had adopted in 1991. The U'wa call themselves "the thinking
people" and so far -- through successful law suits, publicity, and
organizing opposition in North America -- they have outmaneuvered the
oil companies and their supporters in the Colombian government. No oil
drilling has begun on U'wa land, though Occidental still insists it
intends to begin drilling at the earliest opportunity. The U'wa have
threatened mass suicide if drilling begins.

Besides the U'wa, three separate revolutionary groups that are fighting
to overthrow the Colombian government are also opposing oil
development. Their techniques include kidnapping, murder, and frequent
use of high explosives -- techniques also employed by a string of U.S.-
supported Colombian governments.[6]

The Indigenous Women's Network issued a statement March 8th, before
FARC's leadership acknowledged responsibility for the murders. The
statement said, in part,

"We, the members of the Indigenous Women's Network, address our
comments to the world. On February 25, we received word that our sister
Ingrid Washinawatok, the Co-Chair of The Indigenous Women's Network and
Lahe'ena'e Gay and Terence Freitas, two other members of a humanitarian
delegation to the U'wa People of Colombia, were kidnapped. It was
during the end of their visit that our sisters and brother were
kidnapped by hooded men in civilian clothing from the car they were
traveling in. The three were part of a delegation that had been invited
by the U'wa People to join in prayer and solidarity. The purpose of the
trip was to assist the U'wa People in establishing a cultural education
system for their children and support the continuation of their
traditional way of life.

"The morning of March 5, the U.S. Embassy contacted the families of
Ingrid, Lah'ena'e and Terence informing them their bodies had been
found in Venezuela about 30 yards from the border of Colombia. They had
been bound, blindfolded, beaten, tortured, and shot numerous times. It
was through Ingrid's credit cards, which were still in her possession,
that they were able to trace their identity so rapidly.

"The Indigenous Women's Network, joining with the Menominee Nation, and
other Indigenous Nations, is calling for a full prosecution of those
responsible, and an investigation into the actions of the U.S. State
Department in reference to this incident. We believe that the U.S.
State Department destabilized negotiations and ultimately cost our
sisters and brother their lives in a possible attempt to gain financial
support for U.S. policies in Colombia.

"We attribute this assertion to the fact that exactly during the
negotiations for the release of the three humanitarian workers, the
U.S. State Department released approximately $230 million in military
support for the alleged Anti-Drug War in Colombia. The Colombian
government then attacked and killed over 70 members of the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in an orchestrated
attack. We believe that these two overt acts may have destabilized any
hopes for the release of our sisters and brother.

"The U'wa People live in the Arauca province in Northeastern Colombia.
The U.S. multi-national oil corporations, Occidental Petroleum and
Shell Oil, had been carrying out oil exploration in the area known as
the Samore block, the ancestral homelands of the U'wa People. It is
estimated that these oil fields hold less than 1.5 billion barrels of
oil, equating to less than a three-month supply for the U.S. The U'wa
People had threatened to commit mass suicide if these oil companies
were successful in their exploitive endeavors.

"U.S. and Colombian government officials were prompt to lay blame on
the left wing guerilla forces of FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Columbia). This situation is not one that blame can be established
through words of government officials without conducting an
investigation. It is a much more complex crime.

"The reality is that the indigenous community and the U.S. State
Department had both been involved in negotiations for the release of
these three humanitarian workers. Apesanahkwat, Chairman of the
Menominee Nation, was active in attempting to negotiate the release of
the hostages as soon as he heard of their capture. 'I sent a direct
communique to the leadership of FARC two days after [Ingrid] was
captured. The FARC leadership had sent a response by e-mail the morning
of the hostages' death,' Apesanahkwat said, 'They sent greetings to us
as a relative indigenous group, and said they were optimistic about
seeking her release,' he said. Yet, as Apesanahkwat noted, the U.S.
government sent money for arms to the Columbian government four or five
days after the kidnappings, knowing that those arms might be used
against the rebels who may have held the kidnap victims, and that the
kidnap victims might well be executed in retaliation. Seventy FARC
rebels were killed in a government-led attack just before the kidnap
victims were executed.

"We, the Indigenous Women's Network join with the Menominee Nation is
calling for a Congressional inquiry into the State Department actions
in Colombia, with regards to this incident. We also request , on behalf
of our sister Ingrid, that her death not be used to forward political
ends of the U.S. State Department, but that instead, it be recognized
as a crime, a continuation of the Indian wars....

"Ingrid and her companions gave the ultimate sacrifice -- their lives -
- in the struggle for the attainment of human rights for Indigenous
Peoples. State Department support will increase the militarization of a
country already fraught with one of the highest rates of violence in
the Western Hemisphere, and a state continuing violence against
Indigenous peoples. It is against violence, and for the life of the
people and the land, that Ingrid, and the others stood.

"Ingrid as well as her companions viewed the situation of the U'wa as a
part of the global struggle for Indigenous self determination as well
as the preservation of the natural environment. The deaths of our three
companeros must be understood as having a direct relationship to the
many thousands of deaths of those who seek human justice not only in
Colombia but throughout Latin America and other parts of the world.

"We who work for social justice must ensure that further repercussions
do not fall on the U'wa community simply because they sought and
received international solidarity and support from groups like Project
Underground [www.moles.org/], the Indigenous Women's Network and the
Pacific Cultural Conservancy International.[2] The Indigenous Women's
Network and others will do our utmost to see that justice is done and
that we will continue Ingrid's fight in her support of the U'wa Peoples
and all those who work for social justice....

"As women, we are the Mothers of our Nations. We share the
responsibility of being life-givers, nurturers and sustainers of life--
as Mother Earth is a life giver.

"The Indigenous Women's Network is committed to nurturing our children
and planting seeds of truth for generations to come. We do not want to
repeat past mistakes. We will continue our work to eliminate the
oppression of colonization, and to end the Indian wars...."

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)


[1] A web site containing information about these murders is being
maintained by the Indigenous Environmental Network:
www.alphacdc.com/ien/colombia.html. The Indigenous Women's Network
maintains a web site at www.honorearth.com/iwn/.

[2] Lahe'ena'e Gay was director of Pacific Cultural Conservancy
International (PCCI) in Hawaii; telephone (808) 965-8855.

[3] Andrew Jacobs, "3 Kidnapped Americans Killed; Colombian Rebels Are
Suspected," NEW YORK TIMES March 6, 1999, pg. A1. And: Susan Sachs, "3
Victims in Colombia Defended Indigenous People," NEW YORK TIMES March
7, 1999, pg. A18; and Larry Rohter, "Executions of 3 Americans in
Colombia May Prolong Civil War," NEW YORK TIMES March 7, 1999, pg. A19.

[4] Associated Press, "Colombia Rebels Admit to Killings," March 10,

[5] Thomas W. Lippman, "Looking for Oil in New Places, American Firms
Go Outside U.S.," WASHINGTON POST December 28, 1991, pg. D1.

[6] Serge F. Kovaleski, "Bombs Close Colombian Oil Pipeline; 32d Attack
This Year Laid to Rebel Group," WASHINGTON POST June 24, 1998, pg. A25.
And: Serge F. Kovaleski, "Violent Attacks by Guerrillas Undermine
Colombia's Oil Boom; Rebels Declare War on Industry, Ambush Troops
Protecting Pipeline," WASHINGTON POST July 27, 1997, pg. A23.

Descriptor terms: indigenous people; colombia; violence; oil industry;
shell oil; occidental petroleum; latin america; indian wars;